Since they opened the season with a pair of blowout losses to fall to 0-2, the Los Angeles Sparks (4-3) have won four of their last five games, elevating them to the fourth spot in the standings.
Can they win a third-straight game when they visit the nation’s capital and meet the Washington Mystics (3-5) at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday on CBS Sports Network?
It is fair to note that the Sparks have benefitted from a favorable schedule. Three of their four wins have come against the Chicago Sky, who (until Candace Parker’s return on Wednesday night) have had almost everything go wrong this season. Their other victory was over the cellar-dwelling Indiana Fever.
The Mystics, in contrast, have faced a much tougher slate of teams. With the exception of a bad loss in Indiana, Washington’s other losses have come against playoff-caliber teams — Chicago (with Candace Parker), the Phoenix Mercury, the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces. They are coming off a great Tuesday night win over the Minnesota Lynx.
For the season, the squads have similar net ratings, which is considered a better predictor of team quality than win-loss record. The Mystics’ minus-0.8 net rating and Sparks’ minus-1.2 net rating suggests this will be a closer matchup than indicated by a quick glance at the overall records.
Washington’s path to a victory seems rather simple — let Tina Charles go to work! With the Ogwumike sisters out with injuries, the early-season MVP candidate should have the opportunity to put on a scoring clinic, just as she has done all season. While Charles can unleash her arsenal of post moves to score around the basket, she also has flashed an extended range, not only sprinkling in her patented elbow jumper but also corner and above-the-break 3-pointers. She showed all of this off in her 31-point performance against the Lynx on Tuesday, which included a 3-for-6 effort from behind the arc. Although Sparks starting center Amanda Zahui B is familiar with Charles’s offensive repertoire from their time together in New York, Charles is also familiar with Zahui B’s defensive deficiencies. The edge is Charles’.
The winning formula for LA is less clear. Even as they have found their way to the win column of late, the Sparks still lack an offensive identity. Without the ever-efficient Nneka Ogwumike, it is important that they begin to find sustainable half-court scoring. More consistent play from the starting backcourt would help. While Kristi Toliver and Erica Wheeler both have had some efficient scoring games — Toliver against Indiana and Wheeler in the final Chicago game — they also each have had some stinkers. The pair of former All-Stars need to provide more potent scoring from the perimeter every night.
Washington Mystics (3-5) vs. Los Angeles Sparks (4-3)
When: Thursday, June 10 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.
How to watch: CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Washington, Spectrum Sportsnet
Key to the matchup: LA also could use a scoring “spark” from Brittney Sykes. While providing the defensive playmaking that earned her All-Defensive honors last season, Sykes’s offense has been subpar. After posting a career-high true shooting percentage of 58.8 percent last season, her true shooting percentage has plummeted to a career-worst 36.8 percent. Her scoring average has almost been cut in half, going from 10.1 points per game last season to 5.7 this season. That she is scoring more than 27 percent of her points via fast breaks, a mark that would be a career high if it were to hold, underscores her struggles in the half-court. As the Sparks’ sixth woman, she needs to serve as a reliable source of offense for LA’s second unit.
Mystics injury report: Ariel Atkins (probable; back), Sydney Wiese (questionable; ankle), Elena Delle Donne (out indefinitely; back)
Sparks injury report: Nneka Ogwumike (out indefinitely; knee), Chiney Ogwumike (out indefinitely; knee), Jasmine Walker (out for season; knee)